Friday, August 28, 2009

A Substitute Sacrament for those who have None

First of all a disclaimer. I believe in prayer. I believe I pray too little. I believe we spend too little time in prayer on Sunday morning. Prayer is a very important part of the Christian's life and piety. That said, prayer has become a substitute sacrament for those who have no sacraments and that is a distortion of prayer that destroys its purpose and deprives it of its blessing.

Living in a part of the country where the predominant churches do not have sacraments but ordinances and where there are no concrete places where people access the grace in which we stand, I have noticed that prayer is generally treated sacramentally. That is, prayer has become the substitute sacrament for those who do not understand baptism, the Lord's Supper, or the Word to be the means of grace.

Prayer has become for them the chief medium through which they experience God. It has become a conversation more of equals than the humble prayer directed to the Most High. It has become the arena where you argue your case, attempt to change the mind of God, obtain access to the things you want, and feel the presence of God. In this respect, prayer has become something it was never intended to be.

Several conversations of late have shown me what happens without sacraments -- without places to go where God has always promised to be available and where His grace is always accessible to us. I am greatly concerned that Christians in sacramental churches are reading books about prayer published by those who do not have sacraments and our whole understanding of prayer is being distorted in this way.

Let me say it bluntly. Prayer is great but the places where God has made Himself accessible and where He has attached His grace are the Word and the Sacraments. Prayer is not a sacrament. Prayer is the fruit of a rich sacramental life and a faith rooted and grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The purpose of prayer is not to access the grace of God. God invites us to pray so that we may address Him with all the concerns of our heart -- not to change things or to change us, necessarily, but to the intimate conversation of those whose trust the Lord with all that is within -- the good and the bad.

The part of prayer that is its power is the end -- the AMEN that is, for us Christians, the same as Jesus' words, "not My will but Thy will be done." This is prayer's power -- we come with all the burdens of our hearts, we open our hearts to the Lord and address Him with all that is within us, and then we end with confidence in His good and gracious will -- Thy will be done.

Only the Spirit can teach us these words. Only frequent prayer can help us to pray these words with boldness and confidence. Thy will be done. This is not some resignation to the things we fear or abhor but must endure. This is the joyful heart so convinced of God's grace in Christ that we gladly trust ourselves, our needs, our fears, our burdens, our past, our present, and our future to this all sufficient grace. We do not pray to argue for our point of view or to convince God that what we want is really what He wants too. We pray through all our feelings, all our fears, all our burdens, and all our tears so that we can come to the point of saying "Thy will be done."

If you look at the great Psalms of David as prayers, have you noticed how he pours out his soul to the Lord in graphic and blunt terms. He has done down to the pit. He is alone. You know that feeling. I know that feeling, too. He is honest about his attempts to woo the Lord to his point of view and he lays out his cause. But the Psalm does not end there. By the end of the Psalm, his words have turned to praise and thanksgiving for the answer of the Lord. Either this is because he has stopped writing this Psalm and waited to see what God would do and then, when he got what he wanted, he ended his words.... OR it is because he got to that point where he was left with one thing and one thing only -- G0d's all sufficient grace. His final words are a form of what we learned from Jesus to pray -- Thy will be done. Not in resignation but in confidence. God's will is good and gracious. This is our confidence.

The power of prayer is not to change God's mind but to pour out our hearts to Him so that we can leave these burdens and fears at the foot of the cross and leave with a lighter burden... We know that His Word does not return to Him empty handed but accomplishes His purpose... We know that His grace is sufficient... We know that if His kingdom is first in our hearts and minds, everything else will fall into place... We know that God will make all things work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose... in other words, Thy Will Be Done.

When I pray this is my goal... whatever I bring to the Lord, I want to bring with the confidence that whatever His answer, it will be the right answer... whatever will come my way, He will enable me to endure and stand... and, dare I say it, grow from it and through it... all I need to learn in this prayerful conversation with the Father is to say what Jesus has taught me.... Thy Will Be Done!


Janis Williams said...

Pastor, thank you so much for this insight. I come from one of those churches who treat prayer sacramentally. What you say is true.

Since I've been at Grace, my understanding of prayer had changed somewhat, because it was no longer sacramental. Now, however, I understand it's proper place, use, and end.

Thank you, as I begin learning again to pray.

Becky said...

I'm glad a found your blog! This is what I wanted to say when a friend of mine told me the secret of prayer is P.U.S.H. (Pray Until Something Happens) That is not at all what prayer is about. Thank you, Pastor. Now I know how to say it.

Dawn K said...

Hi Pastor Peters,

Many in non-sacramental churches see prayer as a means of grace, after a fashion, though they would not necessarily put it that way. When I was an evangelical the private devotional "quiet time" was what sustained you in your Christian life. It was basically the equivalent of the Lord's Supper in Lutheranism.

The problem is that in such a system, instead of one's Christian life being sustained through God's action, it is basically being sustained by human action. What happens when this human action falters, as it inevitably must from time to time? When this happens, it is easy to see yourself as a complete failure as a Christian.

But this is the beauty of the actual, God-given Sacraments - God sustains me in my Christian life with His life-giving Word. I remember that Christ Himself named me as His own in my Baptism. He gives me His body and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. When I am struggling to pray, when I am distracted by everything going on around me, Christ still says, "This is My body, which is given for you." "This is My blood, shed for you." For me, personally. Even for me. This in and of itself creates faith - the faith that wants to pray and that desires God's will to be done.

Thank you for the great post!

Anonymous said...

What about an LCMS church,where 2 of the pastors and an elder and their wives have attended the LCMS Reclaim Prayer Conference in Texas this summer and came back with a new churchwide emphasis on prayer? Now the pastors have given the distribution of the sacrament over to elders and lay ministers and the pastor invites the congregation to stop and kneel at the prayer rail and he and other elders give a prayer of blessing for them for their prayer needs.
This last Sunday after the sermon there was a prayer and healing service where the congregation was invited to come forward,kneel at the prayer rail, be anointed with oil and elders and the 3 pastors of the church prayed for those that came forward for prayer. Those remaining in the seats were asked to pray for those coming forward or pray for themselves.
It took an additional 20 minutes and then the benediction.
I saw a couple from church later that evening. She recently married a man from a pentecostal church and he joined our LCMS church. He stated that he was surprised that the pastor didn't have "catchers" since it was just like the type of prayer service that was at his previous Pentecostal church.
From what I could see there weren't any people "slain in the spirit" but for all those that are from a pentecostal, charismatic background, I am sure that in time, there will be this occuring.
Is this common in the larger LCMS churches?
I called the pastor the previous week and asked him why he would not serve communion, rather to have the elders and lay ministers distribute the sacraments and he prays for the people that stop and kneel at the prayer rail. He said that for years now he has remained in his chair after consecrating the elements, and prayed for people as they came up for communion. He is the senior pastor and as of yet the two associate pastors have not followed suit.
He said he has done this for several years now so he can pray for people as they come up for communion, especially if he knows they have a need in their life. He said that as long as the pastor consecrates the elements, anyone can do the distribution, although in our church body, women would not.
I told the pastor in this conversation that I didn't understand why he would rather sit and pray for communicants since the better gift is the sacrament. The above answer is his response. The church does have open communion since the congregation is so large. Communicants are to read the back of the attendance card in the pew rack, and if they agree with the LCMS view ( which is stated on the card) then they are welcome to commune.
Any thoughts on my comments?

Anonymous said...

One more comment. One other reason I called the pastor was that two weeks ago when we had communion, he got up from his chair and went over to pray for the people at the prayer rail after receiving communion. He stated that he realized that after going to the Reclaim Prayer Conference, he should get up and pray for those kneeling rather from the chair. So, to me from his actions and words he places more emphasis on prayer than on the Sacraments of the Altar.